26 September 2002
By Royal Orr
This is the second story in a three-part series on the accompaniment programme.
The team from the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme (EAPPI) in Palestine and Israel was gathered on a hill overlooking the Israeli checkpoint on the road from Jerusalem to Ramallah. A young soldier patrolled around a pillbox on a nearby hillside. In the distance, the Palestinian town of Ramallah baked in the mid-afternoon sun.
Marita Roos and Marit Jorgensen, experienced conflict observers from Sweden and Denmark, were explaining to Ecumenical Accompaniers how to assess the security of the situation. They were also giving pointers about what to observe and what to record at checkpoints as part of a week of training for EAPPI participants.
The checkpoint had two control points about half a kilometer apart. Several rifle-carrying soldiers in helmets and flak jackets searched cars and checked ID cards. An older commander stood bareheaded under the meagre shade of an Israeli flag that flapped in the hot breeze.
One of the ecumenical accompaniers pointed towards Kalandia. An ambulance was stopped at the far control point with its blue lights flashing. The team began counting. After 20 minutes, the accompaniers made their way through the pedestrian line-ups, waiting under camouflage netting until the soldiers allowed them to cross through.
On the Kalandia side, Bernt approached the ambulance driver, who invited the accompaniers to meet the patients inside.
"The driver says that the soldiers told him that he had to have a permission form in English to cross," explained Bernt. "His is only in Arabic. They're waiting for permission from higher up."
Several members of the team went to the back of the van. A six-month-old girl who had recently undergone surgery was inside with her mother and father. They were attempting to get to a hospital in Jerusalem for a checkup. Another man sat in the corner.
The doctor who accompanied the ambulance said that the man suffered from mental illness, and that he was being transferred to a specialized facility. With Marita's assistance, Bernt asked if it would help if the EAPPI team spoke with the soldiers at the control point. The driver said that it might.
"What can they do to make it worse?" added the father in frustration. "Shoot us? That would just be normal."
Bernt and Marita went with Heidi and Anne-Lene, both medical students, to speak to the Israeli soldiers. Another accompanier, Brigitta, stood by the ambulance door in quiet conversation with the mother of the sick child.
The waiting traffic stretched out of sight towards Ramallah. Alongside the ambulance, two men were being forced to completely unload a moving van full of carpets and furniture.
The accompaniers talked with the young checkpoint guard for several minutes.
"The soldier says the problem isn't a permit," reported Marita when the small delegation returned. "The man who they claim is mentally unstable has no identity papers. They are refusing him entry, but are willing to let the family through if he is left behind."
Bernt and Marita gave this information to the ambulance driver.
The group then discussed how to proceed. Time is short for any activity in the intensive week of training provided for the ecumenical accompaniers, including this visit to Kalandia. But many of them felt responsible for the people in the ambulance. Everyone was unsure if anything more could be done.
The EAPPI team decided to leave. The accompaniers went through the control line and began the walk back to the Jerusalem side of the checkpoint. Their path was lined with concrete barricades, razor wire and high metal fencing.
As the accompaniers talked quietly among themselves, a Mercedes limousine festooned with white streamers and flowers passed by on its way to Ramallah. Inside sat a slim young man in a tuxedo; his bride was at his side, veiled in white.
At the control point on the Jerusalem side, the next vehicle in the wedding party convoy was stopped. It was a mini-bus filled with Palestinian women and children who were singing and clapping praise for the newly-weds. An Israeli soldier clapped her hands with them as she stepped back to let them pass.
Frustration and hope. Afterward at a debriefing session in Jerusalem, the group would explore the inevitable tensions of being an observer and an accompanier in a conflict situation.
EAPPI is an ecumenical programme of the World Council of Churches.
For more information on the programme, reports from the accompaniers, and photos, see:
Royal Orr is a senior consultant with Columbia Communications in Canada and president of the video production company N.E.X.T. Productions. He is also the host of The United Church of Canada's national religious affairs programme, Spirit Connection. He was in Jerusalem in August 2002 to assist the local EAPPI orientation.